(un)wise words: If you’re comfortable in your living environment, pu’erh will also age well in that environment.
In the search for information on pu’erh storage you’ll sometimes come across folk-wisdom like this that makes longer term pu’erh storage seem awfully easy. Thankfully this sort of advice has become increasingly less common as we’ve learned more, but it is still not difficult to find unwise words of wisdom on tea storage. So why is simply storing tea in your living environment on a shelf a bad idea? Storing it on a shelf is easy and displaying those beautiful tea cake wrappers has appeal. Also, don’t they just store it this way in Asia anyways. So what’s so bad about it?
Storing Tea in Cardboard Boxes in Southern China, Taiwan, and SE Asia Without Adding Humidity is Common
It is true that in many of the pu’erh hotspots listed above the simple methodology of storing it in a cardboard box is common. This seems like a good precedent to follow. A place like Hong Kong has as long a history as anyone in storing pu’erh. So why are we ignoring their cues? And why in the world do we in the west need to go through all this extra effort to age our tea?
The climates in Southern China, Taiwan, and SE Asia are very different from the majority of the west. Most of us have a different hand dealt and need to act accordingly. On average North America or Europe is much cooler than Asia and when we translate this to heated indoor conditions, the tea ends up being stored in significantly cooler and drier conditions on average. In order to replicate environments close to those in the above pu’erh hotspots you would need to artificially amplify both temperature and humidity. In other words, you can use the same methodology but due to the distinct environments the results will be inevitably very different.
What Happens When You Store Pu’erh on the Shelf?
In a storage experiment I did a couple years ago I measured the humidity generated by a 2007 Yangqing Hao Lingya stored in a plastic bag on my shelf for a year or so and compared it with the same tea that was stored in a pumidor with mild humidification. What I found was that the humidity generated between the two cakes differed significantly. There was also a surprising difference in the two cakes, despite them being stored in identical environments for over 90% of their lives. The one that had been stored on my shelf generated a significantly lower RH and was comparatively drier and less vibrant.
Shelf fatigue. Matt has a post about this here, shelf fatigue describes the drying out (often slow) of a tea cake. It may be subtle and slow enough that it is difficult to notice as it is occurring. This is especially true if you are drinking from the cake regularly. For me, the significant difference became much more obvious when I was able to compare the two cakes side bys ide.
Storing tea cakes on a shelf and to a lesser extent in a cardboard box in most western environments will result in a slow drying out process where the tea cakes slowly get worse. This is exacerbated if the cake is stored plainly on a shelf with lots of airflow. A mylar or ziploc as well as storing it with a bunch of other tea in a cardboard box can be partly mitigating (a mylar in particular has a much better seal on average than a ziploc), but anyone who stores their tea where the ambient environment is consistently beneath 60RH is at some risk of shelf fatigue.
Measuring the humidity generated by a cake is a great way to tell the conditions of your tea and if it is dried out. Simply store the tea in a sealed mylar bag with a hygrometer for a couple days and see what it reads. Most well-stored tea will read 60-70RH generated.
As noted above the shelf fatigue risks are relative to your own conditions. I recently moved to a space where the RH is consistently between 50-60. I previously lived where it ranged from 35-50. Presumably the tea would dry out more slowly in my current space than my other one. Both locations are in Seattle and quite close to each other. On paper they look virtually identical.
Maintenance Matters. There are Benefits to Adding Humidity to the Tea Even in the Short-Term
I used to be more in the camp that worrying about storage is only for those that are looking at the very long-term. However, I’ve come around to the idea that it can help to maintain and even significantly improve tea even if you intend to drink it within a couple years. Talking with other people with pumidors and conditioned environments, many note how a dried out tea or sample can improve significantly from just a month or two in a humidified environment. If you’ve stored your tea on the shelf for a bit and think it may have shelf fatigue, the odds are good that it is perfectly salvageable.. Popping it into a humidified environment can help to reinvigorate the tea. Storage isn’t just about improving tea it can also be simply about maintaining the relative quality of it.
We also don’t have control over the previous storage of a tea cake. Even if you are not responsible for a tea drying out, it is very possible for it to arrive at your doorstep generating less than 60RH. Perhaps it dried out in a long customs wait, or you got it from another hobbyist that stored the tea dry. A couple of the teas I’ve had shipped to me domestically have generated as low as 38RH! Having a pumidor or someway to humidify and condition your tea can make a significant improvement in drinking it.
Exception #1: You live in a truly hot and humid climate. If you are a Florida resident or live in a hot and humid climate, you have the envy of many of us. If your life’s goal is to store pu’erh, you are relatively set. By all means store it in a cardboard box on a shelf. Importantly, you should actually measure your ambient RH and temperature in the area you intend to store your pu’erh before making that decision. Eyeballing the temperature and humidity as sufficient is not good enough. Inside conditions differ!
Exception #2: You intend to drink your pu’erh very quickly. If your stash consists of a smaller amount of cakes and you don’t intend to really age your tea, there’s no need to go overboard. I originally wrote this post more generally, but really if you have a small amount of pu’erh and don’t really care if it dries out a little there’s no reason to bother fussing too much. In my opinion, storing it openly on a shelf is still suboptimal and I would use a good seal on a mylar (or at worst a ziploc) to protect your tea. The tea can definitely still dry out, but storing it in something with a good seal and making sure it is well-sealed will help to slow that process down.